Thursday, September 25, 2008


Robert Bresson's 1959 film Pickpocket is something of an enigma. A short, stark feature about an unremarkable, emotionally unavailable man named Michel whose only passion is the art of pickpocketing, which is the only distraction he has in an existence that otherwise consists of him brooding in his small apartment.

The biggest question I found myself having after the film, and one that I think many in the class had, was "why?" The film offers only a hint as to why Michel does what he does; in an early scene, Michel comments about supposed "supermen," echoing a theme in Crime and Punishment. He seems to feel that he has a sense of entitlement; being especially talented at pickpocketing, he feels that he ought to be allowed to do it. Beyond this early exchange, the film offers little outright clues. Perhaps Michel does it for sport. Perhaps he is addicted, getting a high from the thrill of the crime and the excitement of being caught.

Pickpocket is, in fact, filled with "why"'s. Why does Michel steal from his mother but not bring himself to face her? Why does he ignore Jeanne for most of the film? The first time viewing the film, there is little else to do besides guess.

Personally, I feel there's a strong case in saying that Pickpocket is about a man's search for purpose. Bresson doesn't give us too much to work with throughout the film; Michele seems stoic to the end, declaring to Jeanne after he is arrested and thrown in jail that it is not being imprisoned that bothers him, but rather the fact that he got caught. He seemed obsessed with the art of the crime, the beauty of the act which he mentioned in his earlier remarks on "supermen." But as Jeanne moves closer to the bars of the cell, Michel kisses her forehead. His voiceover comments on his circumstances with Jeanne, saying "What a strange way I had to travel to find you." I find this to be a pivotal moment in the film; Michel may have lost his freedom (if it can be called that, since he imprisons himself in his apartment when he isn't out stealing, seemingly out of obsession rather than necessity) but he has gained something he finds much more valuable.

We never find out what becomes of Michel and his newfound sense of purpose in life, but we're not meant to. What we're watching isn't a crime film at all, it's a study in self worth and significance that happens to have crime in it. Could it be that Michel simply wanted that old cliche, love?

Sunday, September 14, 2008


What is it with the French and acts of senseless murder? My experience with French media is somewhat limited, but within the first few minutes of Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, I found the film's anti-hero Michel reminding me of Camus's protagonists Patrice Mersault and Meursault from his novels A Happy Death and The Stranger, respectively.

Michele is a small time crook who gets wrapped up in a much larger crime when he kills a policeman after speeding through the French countryside in a stolen car, both acts committed seemingly out of spite. In this early sequence, Michele establishes himself as a cold, somewhat misogynistic petty criminal with an inflated sense of ego and self worth. "Get stuffed," he addresses the camera (and viewer) as he offers his remedy for a distaste of the French countryside.

It isn't until Michele reaches Paris that we see what could pass for a motive for Michele's behavior. As he wonders the city, he comes across a poster of Humphrey Bogart outside a theater. He imitates one of Bogart's trademark gestures as he gazes on the image. For the remainder of the film, he tries to seduce his American friend Patrica while stealing cars and securing money for an escape to Italy, all the while doing his best cynical Bogart-quasi-tough-guy.

Michele, for as tough as he is (or wants you to believe), almost doesn't feel genuine. He is a character who took an idolization much too far, trying to turn his existence into a real life Big Sleep or Casablanca. Patrica is the only one to see through this, telling Michele that Bogart is an image and that Michele should be himself. Michele, of course, never changes. He is Bogart. Even when Michele tells Patrica that he needs her, that he is in love with her and can't live without her, there's this sense that he feels that way because he's wrapped up in a romantic dream where he steals cars, kills a cop, gets the girl and escapes.

"What would Humphrey do?"

Michele refuses to escape when Patrica betrays him, cynically choosing instead to go to jail. When the cops finally catch up to him, he is shot in the back and, in a winking, extended death sequence, he runs several blocks, utters his enigmatic last words, and dies.

Bogie would be proud, right?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The 400 Blows

The 400 Blows, released in 1959, was Francois Truffant's first feature film and the first to feature his on screen "alter ego" Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Leaud), who would make appearances in four more Truffant films. In The 400 Blows, we find ourselves observing Doinel's everyday life as a young teenager. He is a poor student who is frequently ridiculed by his teacher (ridicule which is not always deserved) and is stuck in an antagonistic relationship with his parents, who are struggling to get by as it is. He has vague ambitions of seeing the ocean.

Much as The Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caulfield could be taken as a loose portrait of Salinger, Doinel, as mentioned, was certainly Truffant on celluloid. After the film had concluded, I couldn't help finding some similarities between the two characters; Doinel, to me, seemed to be a loose parallel to Caulfield, except younger and French. Doinel's behavior, like Caulfield's, seems to act as a form of protection against the perceived unfairness he finds himself surrounded by, and it is not entirely his fault. While not the best student, there are times when the scorn he receives from his teacher is unwarranted (specifically at the beginning when he is reprimanded for having a picture of a pinup girl). In addition, he is regarded coldly by his mother (who confides in his stepfather that she finds Doinel "annoying"), and he catches her kissing another man on the street one day while cutting school. His stepfather, though mostly friendly, is shown to have a bit of a tempter at times, and constantly fights with Doinel's mother. Doinel later reveals to a therapist that his mother originally didn't want to have him, and that he was to have been aborted before his grandmother stepped in. The knowledge and consequences of these events have shaped Doinel into a sort of antihero, one who we as a viewer want to see succeed but on another level find it hard at times to get behind.

One reoccurring theme I noticed in the film was Doinel running away from or isolating himself from authority. This, combined with his wanting to see the ocean and completed with his finally reaching the sea at the end of the film, is rather significant as he spends most of the movie fleeing those he feels have alienated him, only to finally reach the symbol of ultimate freedom and directionless wandering, the ocean. The film ends on a freeze frame, a still of Doinel facing the camera. The ending is somewhat ambiguous in that we don't know how the story ends for Doinel, but we can assume that based on the music playing, and the fact that the film ends with the ocean and facial shot and never hints at any other misfortunes waiting for Doinel (perhaps that he is being chased, etc) that, for now, Doinel is free from his spotted past, and free to run where he pleases.